John M. Vorys – Naval Aviator #73

John Martin Vorys has been characterized as the Samuel Pepys of the First Yale Unit.  A talented illustrator and skilled debater, he left a record of the Unit and their war experience in drawing and word that is a unique treasure.  Both a joker and trusted friend to those who knew him well, Vorys was not afraid to show his true feelings when thrown into the crucible of war.  

Born June 16, 1896, in Lancaster, Ohio, John M. Vorys was the son of Jeanny and Arthur I. Vorys.  His father was City Solicitor and the State Superintendant of Insurance, as well as a partner in a prominent law firm.  Seen as a political operative in Republican circles, A. I. Vorys was selected as the Eastern Campaign Manager in the successful 1908 presidential bid of William Howard Taft.  His connection to the Taft family would eventually lead his son to Yale.  

John M. Vorys attended the public schools in Lancaster and Columbus where he was captain of the high school football team and on the track team.  After attending a summer academic preparatory camp, he was accepted to Yale and his father received a letter of congratulation from President Taft.  As a Yale freshman, Vorys was large for his age and his extra curricular activities included playing center on the freshman football squad with Di Gates.  He was sidelined from the varsity gridiron due to injuries, but he lettered in track.  He was known at Yale as an inveterate illustrator, rendering many drawings for the Yale Record.  He was also a member of the debate team and won the coveted Ten Eyck prize, beating the president’s son, Charlie Taft, among others.  

Swept up in the preparedness movement in the spring of 1916, Vorys decided to join the Yale Battery in anticipation of war with Mexico.  His father dissuaded him from this notion on grounds that the Mexican conflict would probably not engulf the nation.  But less than a month later, while recovering in Grant Hospital from a tonsillectomy, Vorys was contacted by Trubee Davison.  

“I received a long and rather incoherent telegram from Trubee, talking about flying….With a sigh, I passed it up and turned over and went to sleep.  Later in the week, Trubee telephoned my home, whither I had returned, and explained the idea of which I remember only that we were not to fly very high and that because we flew over water we wouldn’t get hurt if we did fall occasionally.”  

With these vague assurances, John was allowed to join his friends on Long Island for the summer of 1916.  Immediately smitten with flying and aviation, it wasn’t long before Vorys was committed to Davison’s cause and joined the First Yale Unit.  In a letter dated Sept. 11, 1916 he wrote to his brother Webb:

“…I was going to fly alone which was the reason for so much flying before-hand, but the water was too rough and then it got too dark.  It was beautiful to see the two aero planes darting about each other like a couple of festive sparrows [and], in the twilight, made flying seem like a natural thing.  
Pop said something about discontinuing flying.  I don’t see how I could back out now, after the outlay of money, food, etc. I’ve occasioned.  I don’t know how, really yet, and things are just starting.  It’s dangerous, of course, but not half so dangerous as a lot of things I do, and it will be great to be on the band-wagon in this new era that flying brings…”  

Back at Yale in March of 1917, as calls for war swirled around campus, Vorys found himself debating against Harvard and Princeton on behalf of a proposed “League of Nations”.  Following the speech, he was surprised to find a telegram from Bob Lovett saying that the Unit had been ordered south and that he was to get to New London, Connecticut, right away to be sworn in.  On Saturday, March 24, 1917, Vorys received his Ensign commission with the U.S. Naval Reserve Flying Corps.  The pay was $135.00 per month.  

Vorys traveled to West Palm Beach, Florida, with the Unit and, while in Palm Beach, he was tapped for Yale’s most secret society, Skull & Bones, in a special ceremony.  He also became the leader of the Razz Crew, an informal group including Al Sturtevant who guffawed at fellow pilots who made sloppy and bumpy landings on the water.  In June, the Unit traveled north to Huntington, Long Island, where they continued their training and, in late July, Vorys passed his naval flying test and became Naval Aviator #73.  On a less joyful task, he also served on the naval board of inquiry following Trubee Davison’s crippling crash.  

Along with most of his fellow fliers, Vorys expected to be sent to Squantum, Massachusetts, or Hampton Roads, Virginia, as an instructor.  Much to his surprise, he was ordered to get to London on the soonest available transport.  On September 14, 1917, he and Al Sturtevant boarded the U.S.M.S. St. Paul, becoming the third and fourth members of the Unit to be shipped overseas.  As the voyage commenced, Vorys started his “war journal” and drew sketches and portraits to record his impressions of his wartime experience.

“We looked on the trip as a glorious lark before the real thing began….Al and I paced the deck and thought about not only how little chance there was to come back but also how little chance there was of getting over; and about leaving home and all home ties, and risking all this, and about what we were risking it for…and about being part of a whole nation which was going into a war for things greater than us, greater almost than that nation; and of how we were to help in that pitiful, pitiless, burning, burning, burning that was to slough away all the dross in the nations and weld them together, even Germany, goldarn her hide – well, we went to bed exalted, but very, very mournful.”

After arriving safely in London, Vorys was ordered to Hortain, France, where he trained on rotary engine machines and French F.B.A.s.  He then attended finishing school at San Rafael, France, where he received his French brevet.  Vorys and Sturtevant were next ordered to Felixstowe, England, where they learned to fly H12 and H14 aircraft.  On their first real war assignment, they flew “spider web patrols” in ever-widening arcs searching for German U-Boats over the North Sea.  In December of 1917, on leave in London for Christmas, Vorys was happily reunited with several members of the First Yale Unit at the Savoy.  But while the others hit the bar to drown themselves in drink, Vorys stole away to the lobby where he ate a fine meal and wrote home to his mother reminiscing of Christmas past:

“ …Understand, I’m not suffering hardships.  I’m in wonderfully comfortable surroundings, I’ve got friends, everything is gay – but it’s not Christmas.  Here in the “lobby” are really beautiful women with officers and men in evening clothes, an orchestra is playing, but it’s not Christmas.  And I’m awful, awful homesick…”

At Felixstowe he assisted Bob Lovett in his analysis of Royal Naval Air Service practices and enjoyed off-hours at parties at the nearby Felix Hotel.  As part of their mission, Vorys and Sturtevant had been instructed to serve as goodwill ambassadors for the United States.  But their goodwill may have gone too far when they both fell under the spell of the beautiful and mysterious Mrs. Dowson at the Felix.  

“Her father was an Irishman and her mother came from the Argentine.  She had an ivory skin and dark blue eyes and was very, very lovely.  A lady with a past but still a lady!”  

She was interested to know as much as she could glean about naval operations.  But the boys quickly lost interest in Dowson when they learned that she was likely a German spy, and that they could be court-martialed if they spent any more time with her.  

Through all of this, Vorys and Sturtevant had become very good friends.  Vorys wrote:

“He and I were pretty homesick at times.  We had been together a lot and knew each other well so we talked about home, and he would tell me about his folks and vice versa, and discuss girls.  As I look back on it, these times we had together were the best of my life, just because we had such talks.  I don’t know how to explain it, but we’d always find something to talk about.”  

The weather of February 1918 over the North Sea was rainy and cold, and sometimes quite rough.  This kept the pilots grounded for periods of time, though Vorys’ rotation seemed to come up more often on clear days, and Sturtevant was falling behind on his patrols.  On February 14th, Sturtevant asked Vorys if he could fly in his place the next morning.  After some negotiating, Vorys consented.  

Sturtevant left at dawn before Vorys woke and the two would never see each other again.  Of the two convoy planes that went out that morning, only one returned, just before noon.  The two planes had encountered ten German fighters.  Sturtevant’s plane was closest to the enemy and the surviving plane had run for home because of a faulty engine.  Sturtevant’s plane was seen to fall into the sea in flames near the Belgian coast.  Vorys was devastated over the loss of his friend, the first aviator in U.S. service to die in combat in World War I.  

“Al’s done in, I guess.  He went out on patrol yesterday morning with Purdy and another machine.  At 11:30 the other machine came back, and with white faces, told how suddenly they’d seen a flock of Hun machines come out of the clouds near Al’s machine which was leading; he turned and they tried to turn, one motor cut out and they spun round.  Then with five Huns after them they jockeyed their motor back and streaked for home.  The last they saw of Al he was heading south with five Hun fighters swarming around his tail.  And then the five left Faux and Bailey, and presumably went back after the other machine.  We haven’t heard a word from the H 12 Al and Purdy were in so I’m afraid that with 10 Huns against one big clumsy boat, the story is over.”

Ordered back to the States following the death of Sturtevant, Vorys became an instructor at Hampton Roads where he eventually served as interim commander of the training program for Naval Aviators.  While at “The Roads” he became a test pilot flying experimental aircraft and developed a custom sight for dropping bombs.  At the time of the Armistice, Vorys was stationed in the Philadelphia area and participated in celebratory fly-overs during victory parades.  

In February 1919 he was discharged from service and returned to Yale with the intention of studying law.  He graduated from Yale in 1919 and from Ohio State University Law School at Columbus in 1923.  After teaching in the College of Yale, Changsha, China, he became assistant secretary, American delegation, to the Conference on Limitation of Armament, Washington, D.C.  He was elected to the Ohio state house of representatives in 1923 and served in the state senate in 1925-26.

In 1939, Vorys was elected from the 12th district of Ohio as the Republican representative to the Seventy-sixth Congress and to nine succeeding congresses through 1959.  In 1942, Roosevelt called him back to duty and, ever-ready, Vorys flew for the Civil Air Patrol anti-submarine unit over Gulf of Mexico throughout the Second War.  

The Millionaires’ Unit – The Aristocratic Flyboys Who Fought the Great War and Invented American Air Power by Marc Wortman
The First Yale Unit – Naval Aviation 1916-1919 by Ralph D. Paine
The Vorys Family Archive

Photo: Courtesy Vorys Archive 

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